Search for content, post, videos

Saul Leiter – The painterly photographer


Any genealogy of the idioms of pre-digital photography needs to acknowledge characteristics of Saul Leiter’s work that went entirely un-noted at the time. He took shots from quirky vantage points, like misty or half-curtained windows, captured glimpses of pedestrians in motion and played with street shadows like an auteur of film noir. His blurred and grainy scenes verge on the abstract.

There was no money for any of this in post-World War 2 New York. A big break for Leiter, after having the electricity cut off and needing to pawn his camera, came with fashion shoot assignments for Harper’s Bazaar in the late 1950s. In the last year of that decade, his work appeared in 11 of the magazine’s 12 issues: bills could be paid; redemption at the pawnbroker’s.

Leiter’s signature style – he remained a street photographer at heart – struck a chord with a fashion industry crying out for original representations of its products: models were seen from afar, rarely head-on, and if a striking diagonal punctuated a pose – an umbrella, vehicle or lamppost – then all to the good. A fashionable garment could be reflected in a mirror or framed by foliage. Leiter had found a niche: ‘It’s like eating spaghetti. The first time I ate it, I had difficulty managing it, but by the end of the meal I was beginning to catch on….My strongest desire was to have enough money to pay my rent and pay my light bill.’

Saul Leiter’s colour photography remained unknown for too long and the first exhibition of it did not come until 1996, half a century after his earliest foray into this field. This was long before Stephen Shore and William Eggleston established colour photography’s credibility for a public audience. Leiter was in his early 80s when he work was finally published in 2006; Margit Erb, in this fine retrospective of his oeuvre, calls his early photography ‘the missing link in the history of colour photography’.

Saul Leiter was also a painter and a bonus of this handsome publication are the insets of pages from his lovely 1986 sketchbook and an accompanying chapter devoted to his paintings. What comes across is the way the passage of time – the sheer impermanence of everything – makes itself unobtrusively felt in both his photographs and his paintings. This is his claim on our attention and respect.

Sean Sheehan


Saul Leiter, edited by Ingo Taubhorn and Brigitte Woischnik, is published by Kehrer Verlag.
Hardcoverwith banderole22 x 26,4 cm296 pages
155 color and b/w illustrations English, German
ISBN 978-3-86828-258-02012

Create an account or log in to read more and see all pictures.

Install WebApp on iPhone
Install WebApp on Android